Coming off the Raider win, the biggest concern for San Diego was not its record. At 4-3, the season still had plenty of space and time to go either way. The greater worry was how the team was looking during that first half. With no running game (and a stubborn insistence at running it the same way every game), and a passive defense that was giving up yardage at an alarming rate, this team looked like a shadow of itself.
Injured players returning to health has had some effect, but the biggest change in the team has come from the playcalling ideology. On offense, the team is running, but they are much less predictable in how they run, be it how or who. This was capped by 14 carries between Tolbert and Hester against the Broncos, something not even seen when Tomlinson was hurt.
Running the football over the last two weeks is an effort to move the chains and gain yards, from weeks two through 10 they were a way to keep defenses honest and open up play-action. Because they are putting yards on the ground, the team has opened up Rivers, whose yardage totals have dipped, but his passing percentage has skyrocketed because he no longer has to be the offense.
This change in running the football is only a few games old, and as much execution as playcalling, but the team’s alterations to its defense can be followed much easier. Since the team began riding its five-game winning streak, they have emphasized a much more aggressive approach, blitzing more often (they won’t be mistaken for the '08 Giants, but...) and putting opposing quarterbacks on their heels.
The interception total has ridden modestly (four in the first five games, six in the last), but the sack total has exploded (twenty against seven across that same time span).
Merriman’s health has helped somewhat, but I will put much more of this on the change in ideology. Ron Rivera started the season using the attack-based 3-4 formation in a passive coverage-based style that allowed teams to put points and yardage against the team at will.
His current emphasis on playing the 3-4 in a fashion reminiscent of the team’s under Wade Phillips, has allowed the team (one-and-a-half quarters against the Eagles aside) to push around opposing teams and force them into losses.
The team has always had talent, but one could not help but feel the team was underutilizing this talent early on. If Rivers did not connect on 40+ yard bombs to Jackson or Floyd, the team had no offense.
With so many versatile guys on both sides of the ball, the team finally seems to play to its strengths now, which is a big reason not just for a five game winning streak, but more importantly three consecutive wins against teams that are all now 6-4.
The only hope now is that the team continues to attack on defense and spread the wealth a bit in the running game. I feel if the evolving identity of the team continues down the path it is on, this will be a scary opponent in the playoffs and one no team wants to face.
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